"I love Aztec history," Juan Roque says, holding a Philly cheese
steak sandwich in his huge hands as if it were an ocarina. "It's
a real rags-to-riches story. A band of indigenous people in
northern Mexico who basically had nothing, who migrated south,
got powerful, knocked off all the big tribes and created one of
the most beautiful cultures...."
This is an article from the Dec. 30, 1996 issue
As Roque talks, you get the idea that the Aztecs haven't crashed
the conversation by accident. For the "band of people who
basically had nothing," you could substitute the Arizona State
football team, circa 1994--winners of just three games. For "got
powerful, knocked off all the big tribes," you are invited to
imagine the same Sun Devils, circa 1996--undefeated, second
ranked, conquerors of onetime No. 1 Nebraska and contenders for
the national championship. As for "one of the most beautiful
cultures," how about the rose-strewn streets of Pasadena on New
Then again, this monologue may not be about football at all.
Roque says his ideal is the Aztec warrior, whom he describes as
"fearless yet respectful, courageous yet humble. Under that
mentality there is no barrier to achievement." As you look more
closely at this 22-year-old, so big--6'8", 319 pounds--that he
makes the booth he's occupying in the College Street Deli look
like a child's swing, you wonder what's bubbling under the
baseball cap, blocking schemes or dialectics?
The answer is both. In Roque (rhymes with croquet) the Sun
Devils have a finisher, literally and figuratively. This season
at left tackle Roque has had 662 "finishes" (football slang for
those occasions on which an offensive lineman neutralizes a
defender until the whistle is blown) and 70 "double finishes"
(blocks that knock a defender on his butt). But Roque is also a
finisher in a larger sense. He got his degree in Latin American
history in May, and now he's that rare bird, the
graduate-student All-America football player. Even his genes
proclaim persistence: An aunt lived 105 years, a grandmother 95.
"I come from a family that's made of oak," he says with pride.
"My mama says, 'We're from good wood.'"
And the Arizona State quarterback's mama says--well, listen for
yourself, because she says it all the time. After every Sun
Devils game, as the players and their families mill around,
Marilyn Plummer spots the Aztec warrior and runs over and gives
him a big hug. She says, "Thank you, Juan, for protecting my son."
Did the Aztecs have a word for bodyguard? Did they produce wall
carvings showing a little guy running around with a small
package while a giant guy flattens pursuers? Roque doesn't know,
but he's determined that no modern glyph will show Jake (the
Snake) Plummer lying on the ground after a blindside tackle.
"In our offense the quarterback is the most important guy on the
field," Roque says. "They get our quarterback, they've got us."
And Plummer is not just any quarterback, but a rare combination
of skill and spunk--the principal reason the Sun Devils are in
the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1987. "Without Jake,
we're nothing," says Roque. "You just can't help but love the
Or despise him. "Well, yeah," Roque concedes with a bashful
smile. "I hated his guts when he first got here in '93. Here
comes this skinny, goofy kid from Idaho, too laid-back, always
popping off. I grabbed him by the throat one time and said I was
going to kill him. And you know what? He just smiled."
Roque's conclusion? "I said, 'This guy's got no break point.'"
The following year, when both Roque and Plummer were starters,
friendship replaced antagonism. For one thing, it was hard for
Roque to be jealous of a quarterback who took more hits than a
pinata. "That was the year that some of our guys wouldn't follow
the rules, just wanted to do their own thing," Roque recalls.
"They'd miss blocks, run the wrong routes, and you'd see Jake
get slammed. It made you sick." And it made the Sun Devils a 3-8
Since then Roque has sent word to opposing pass rushers that
Plummer's backside is terra incognita. Although Plummer has gone
down often enough on play-action passes, the quarterback has
rare-ly been blindsided, and Roque has allowed zero sacks. His
protection has helped Plummer pass for 2,575 yards and 23
touchdowns. "I don't even notice him out there, and that's
good," Plummer says of Roque. "If I noticed him, he'd be picking
me up and saying, 'Sorry.'"
"All other left tackles stand in Juan's shadow," says Arizona
State coach Bruce Snyder. Roque is an almost certain first-round
NFL draft pick.
The irony of this rush of accolades is not lost on Roque. In
November '94, when Californians passed Proposition 187--a state
initiative that denies welfare, health care and educational
benefits to undocumented aliens but is now tied up in the
federal courts--Juan watched with more than passing interest
because he felt his Mexican heritage could have made him a
target for nativist resentment. Juan, whose mother, Maria, had
legal alien status in the U.S., was born in San Diego in 1974.
Then mother and son returned to Mexico to be with Juan's father,
Armando, who subsequently found work on an oil rig in the Gulf
of Mexico. "We lived by the beach, it was very hot, and I had a
friend who had a turtle," Juan recalls of his toddlerhood in the
coastal town of Coatzacoalcos.
In 1977 the Roques returned to California for the birth of
Juan's first sister, Alicia, and this time they all stayed.
Although Armando's temporary visa expired after a couple of
years, he stayed in the country illegally until he finally
secured resident status. Maria was granted U.S. citizenship in
1982, two years after the family had purchased a house in
Ontario, Calif., less than an hour's drive from the Rose Bowl.
Armando, who works in the construction industry, is scheduled to
be sworn in as a citizen early next year.
Juan remembers riding in the car with his father one day during
the time that Armando was seeking permanent residency but
drowning in red tape. As they passed the house of a family that
was on welfare and awash in drugs, Armando wondered aloud: "Here
I am, a hardworking person with good values--and they're trying
to get rid of me?"
"You remember things like that," Juan says.
Perhaps because of his background, Juan arrived at Arizona State
with an anger that could be unleashed by a thoughtless remark or
a perceived snub. "I think he was looking for approval more than
coaching," says junior left guard Kyle Murphy, the other half of
Plummer's blindside protection. "If Juan didn't start, he
thought it was because Coach didn't like him."
Another teammate, senior center Kirk Robertson, remembers how a
single mistake used to rattle Roque. "He'd be so emotional in a
game, he'd be crying. We'd say, 'Calm down, Juan,' and he
would--but it took him three years to get self-control."
Today when Roque looks at tapes from his freshman and redshirt
seasons, he sees himself as others saw him: a kid with slow feet
and crude technique weighing a puny 260 pounds. But coach Snyder
saw something else in the hot-tempered youngster: desire, pride
and a strong work ethic. "Coach was like Freud with me," Roque
says. "He said, 'You can't get upset. You've got to let me coach
And Roque did. By the end of his sophomore season he had put on
60 pounds, developed quicker feet and practiced his blocking
assignments until they were automatic. "Now I'm a very coachable
player," he says. "If Coach tells me to run into the wall, I run
into the wall."
When the wall has nothing to do with football--Proposition 187,
for example, or his family's fight for acceptance--Roque draws
less on his physical strength than on his intellect and his
passion. In October he joined President Clinton on the podium at
a campaign rally in Tempe and told a boisterous crowd how his
father had struggled nearly 20 years for U.S. citizenship and
finally grasped "the sword of power," his right to vote as an
This fall, while Roque waited to see what his last season of
football eligibility held, he took graduate courses in education
with an eye toward earning his teaching certificate. "I'll need
to find an enlightened principal who will let me teach Latin
American history and entwine it with U.S. history," he says. He
also sees opportunities in politics, figuring that his ability
to speak and think in both Spanish and English could prove
useful. "I might become a congressman," he says.
Meanwhile Roque seizes the opportunities afforded to football
stars. He visits schools. He counsels children to avoid drugs.
He plays the role model. "He's a great example to his
community," says Murphy, the man at Roque's right shoulder when
Arizona State has the ball. "Juan can inspire minority kids to
go to college--and to succeed when they get there. I'm really
proud of him."
There is, of course, some football yet to be played. When
Arizona State meets Ohio State on New Year's Day, Roque will
line up the majority of the time against the Buckeyes' Mike
Vrabel, the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. But
inevitably Roque will be compared with Ohio State offensive
tackle Orlando Pace, a two-time winner of the Lombardi Award,
which goes to the country's top lineman. "I can't get caught up
in the mystique of the Rose Bowl," Roque responds. "I've got a
job to do."